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School of Rock (A Movie Review)


Starring Jack Black, Mike White, Joan Cusack, Sarah Silverman, Joey Gaydos Jr., Kevin Clark, Miranda Cosgrove, Robert Tsai, Maryam Hassan, Rebecca Brown, Caitlin Hale, Aleisha Allen, Brian Falduto, Zachary Infante, James Hosey, Angelo Massagli, Cole Hawkins, Veronica Afflerbach, Jordan Claire-Green, Joanna Adler, Lauren Adler, Riley G. Matthews Jr., Barry Shurchin, Cary Clark, Nicole Ilise Clark, Ambie Daniel and Frank Whaley.

Screenplay by Mike White.

Directed by Richard Linklater.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.

I've got sort of a weird love/hate thing going with Jack Black. I think he's a terrific comedian and a pretty decent singer/songwriter, too. Yet, he is a bit of a one-note personality. His standard character is a sort of a know-it-all rock snob and slob who makes up for a lack of social stature with a bullying in-your-face insistence that everyone live within his hard and fast rules of hip.

Now, I know that he's parodying people like this (at least, I hope he's just parodying these people). But, having spent many years in the musical and publishing worlds, I've known way too many of the people Black is lampooning. So, every time he launches into one of his tirades, even when it is truly funny, I feel a queasy sense of déjà vu. I don't know if I want to laugh or punch the guy.

Which is, I guess, why I've tended to prefer Black in small doses. He has worked best in supporting roles, as John Cusack's smug co-worker in High Fidelity or as the slacker older brother in Orange County. Starring roles in stuff like Shallow Hal and Saving Silverman have tended to wear out his welcome.

School of Rock is the first film that has been placed squarely on Black's shoulders. I'm pleasantly surprised to find for the most part he is up to the challenge. It helps that there is some terrific talent on both sides of the camera. The film was directed by indie hero Richard Linklater, who had seemed to lose his way after impressive early films Before Sunrise, Slacker and Dazed and Confused. It was written by Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), who also appears acting as Black's roommate. Joan Cusack has a nice turn as an uptight school principal.

It's funny that all these fringe talents are at the service of this story, which is on the surface, at least, is sitcom stuff at best, kind of ridiculous at worst. Black plays Dewey Finn, an over-thirty rock god wannabe who even annoys his band with clichéd guitar solos and stage dives. In one day, his world falls apart. First, his best friend and roommate Ned Schneebly (White) gives in to the nagging of his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman somehow rises above the shrill harpy role she's been given) and refuses to allow Dewey to freeload off of him anymore. Then, he is fired from his band.

Desperate for money, Dewey comes up with the idea of pretending to be Ned and take a job as a substitute teacher at an exclusive (read: rich and stuck up) boarding school. We are supposed to overlook the fact that a private school... hell, any school... would never, ever hire someone sight unseen without seeing any identification whatsoever. At first, Dewey figures he can sleep and goof off. But… and this is where the film starts to do something a little subversive… the kids in his class are honors students and actually want to learn. Dewey can't understand the fact that they are not willing to slack off, but when he sees the students learning classical music, he realizes there IS one thing he can teach the children. He can teach them how to rock.

Of course, to these children, rock and roll music is as foreign as classical is to Dewey. They learn riffs from Ozzy and Led Zep and Deep Purple with the same inquisitive wonder as they would apply to Brahms. It turns out they can play. Damned well. Black tells them it is a school project and forms a rock group which he hopes will beat his old group in a battle of the bands. All the while, he is trying to hide what he is doing from the student's parents, his roommate, and Joan Cusack's neurotic principal with a secret yen for Stevie Nicks.

Okay, so it is a stupid story, but does it work? Surprisingly well. Part of this is due to the sheer abandonment with which Black throws himself into the role. Even his annoying tendencies don't seem to chafe, somehow. The children are wonderful, every one is smart, complex, and cute – but real kids, not precociously "Hollywood" cute. This adds a gravity to the featherweight story and makes the big battle of the bands finale surprisingly moving.

The School of Rock is a movie that truly is much more than the sum of its parts. (10/03)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Posted: October 11, 2003.


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